You may not think of cosplay as being scientific, but there is a lot of science that goes into it. To begin with, creating a costume requires deciding on a desired outcome, researching the best way to make it (leading to a hypothesis), and testing it out. There’s more to it than that, though. For example, it’s important for costumers to know the chemical properties of adhesives, dyes, and various metals, as well as how they react with different materials. Physics also plays a role when it comes to measuring and fabricating 3D components.
Over the years and through various panels, Ryan Cosnell, Emily Finke, and Mika McKinnon, along with others, have presented valuable information regarding the scientific aspects of cosplay at Dragon Con. For more information on how cosplay fits into the fields of technology, engineering, art, and mathematics, check out STEAM in Cosplay.
The presenters discussed the physical science aspects of using patterned designs of flat fabric and figuring out how to sew them to make a 3D shape made to fit around a “round” body. They also explained the importance of understanding how the costume will behave in certain environments, and discerning what mech or tech can be added based on the fabric’s tensile strength. However, most of the scientific content covered centered around the chemistry of adhesives, dyes, and metals.
When it comes to the chemistry of adhesives, different fabrics work best with different adhesives, and it’s important to know which combinations could potentially be dangerous. The panelists explained that adhesives have to also be cohesive to be effective. A costumer must also consider the adhesive’s exposure to environmental elements such as moisture and temperature. Some adhesives stay liquid due to being a solvent, so it’s important to account for what it might dissolve into, such as foam.
Some glues have additives that can change the reaction with the material being used. For example, some might actually melt latex. I’d say that’s pretty important to know. Other examples of unwanted reactions include combining spray paints with foam, which can also cause melting, and using super glue on felt, which can potentially cause a fire. It also pays to note that super glue as a water catalyst turns to plastic almost immediately. Proving what most of us already know, it’s time-sensitive. One last adhesive mentioned was slug adhesive. It was explained that while slug adhesive is the strongest, it’s really better suited for medical usage rather than with plastics.
The discussion regarding dyes began with an explanation of the difference between dyes and pigments. Dyes are solutions that will chemically bond with the material they are combined with while pigments are suspensions that basically coat the material creating a physical rather than a chemical bond. Since these terms are often used interchangeably, this was enlightening. One thing to take into account when choosing a dye versus a pigment is its opacity. Dyes are not opaque, so a second layer will actually cover up the first. Also, it’s hard to accurately predict how a pigment will react with an already colored fabric, meaning it’s important to test it out first.
Some colors fade quicker than others due to their UV stability and molecular structure. Although it is possible to ascertain why, it’s probably best just to test it out so you know which fades more. Another problem with discoloration occurs due to sweat or even the type of deodorant used. And, while non-aluminum deodorant is better, it’s not necessarily as effective against body odor. One way to counter this problem is to use a combination of equal parts water and cheap vodka (not sweetened or colored) to spray the inside of the costume. It will kill off the bacteria that cause both discoloration and the trapping of odors. Of course, it’s best to do this while the costume is inside-out to ensure it dries completely.
Obviously, different fabrics react differently with dyes, and some will hold the color better than others. For example, dyes for silk are not the same as dyes for cotton. Adding salt to dyes will reduce the dyes’ solubility, which will make them stick to the fabric better. Also, any change in pH will cause a change in the tint of the color. Finally, costumers must take into consideration how actual versus artificial dyes interact with different fabrics since some will cause fabrics to burn or cause polymers to melt. Overall, panelists advocated testing, testing, and more testing. And, as any good scientist knows, you should keep a record of your results for future reference.
On to the science of metalwork in cosplay. The most common metals used in costumes are aluminum, steel, brass, and sometimes copper. Each of these metals reacts to heat differently, and cosplayers need to consider both external temperatures as well as their body temperature. Sweat and oils also react differently with different metals. For example, sweat coming off aluminum is usually black. So if the color of your perspiration is an issue for you, then you need to be careful what metals you incorporate into your costume, especially if they will come into contact with your skin.
Some key safety points shared regarding the use of metals were that melting brass will release toxic fumes and some metals (and even some paints) are more electrically conductive. In addition to metals, the panelists also brought up thermoplastics. Thermoplastics are flexible and therefore can melt. Thermosets and EVA foam have different molecular structures and burn rather than melt.